Three meat-free ways to draw crowds to the bar

If the ongoing demand for vegetarian dishes has anything to say about it, upgrading a bar menu with beverage-friendly, meat-free options can be a low-cost way to entice customers and ease understaffed, busy kitchens.

“Plants made their way onto bar menus in a big way in the 2000s, and we are not looking back,” says Andre Darlington, food and beverage writer and author of recently published book, "Bar Menu". “Now we are building on what we’ve learned from drinking cultures where veggies are an integral part of the experience – Japan, Italy and Spain come to mind. Turns out that a snappy carrot, a juicy cucumber or a crunchy artichoke can be an elevated bar snack with the right process.”

To revitalize the bar menu, consider these sour, spicy and salty approaches that are ideal for pairing with craft beers and signature cocktails.


What it is: These Southeast Asian-inspired peanuts are fragrant, crunchy and curiously complex. Coriander adds nutty, spicy notes. Makrut lime leaves offer a hit of sour.

Why it works: A rise in allergy concerns and the increased affordability of other nuts once threatened to push peanuts into bar snack oblivion. But they’re making a comeback thanks to their healthy, high-nutrient profile. The sour and salty elements of this dish pair particularly well with refreshing cocktails like daiquiris and gimlets. They’re easy for staff to make and can be served warm during winter or at room temperature in milder seasons. They’re also an affordable complimentary offering.

Good to know: “Gratis snacks have accompanied cocktails since the beginning as early bar owners learned that kippers could coax another coin from guests’ pockets to quench the resulting thirst,” says Darlington. “More than financial gain, freebies make guests feel welcome and are a great way to begin memorable experiences that last longer than one drink – and one visit.”


What it is: These patties combine West African and Caribbean flavors in an homage to the multicultural Highbridge neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. Filled with fermented plantains and collard greens, they’re slightly spicy from smoked paprika and red chili flakes, fresh from a sofrito jumping with ginger, chilies and cilantro, and with a salty umami punch from white miso. “It gives that backyard feel and makes us feel at home,” says Chef Lester Walker, cofounder of Ghetto Gastro and coauthor of “Black Power Kitchen.”

Why it works: The dish meets diners’ demands for satisfying plant-based dishes while not overwhelming the drinking experience. “Because this delicious snack is meatless, it’s lighter on the stomach so you can enjoy more without feeling like you need a nap after,” Walker says. Balancing sweetness and spice, these pair well with spicy, ginger-based cocktails with a splash of bitters.

Good to know: Bar culture is notorious for providing a unique sense of time and place, offering truly local experiences or transporting customers elsewhere. Vegetarian bar snacks help encourage such a locally authentic experience by layering people, time and place in creative, cultural cuisine. “This snack is for us by us,” says Walker. “Its rich taste and strong ties to Afro-Latino culture is addictive as well as delicious. The future of food is plant-based.”


What it is: Thinly sliced lotus root is soaked in vinegar, fried until crisp and doused with salt. They’re a flavor-forward mashup of Asian and English chips.

Why it works: There’s a reason why we reach for chips when slightly soused – moderate consumption of alcohol enhances how our brain tastes salt, fat and sugar. We also metabolize calories from alcohol quickly, seeking higher-calorie foods in response. “These trigger the brain with salt and fat – as well as the familiar pub malt vinegar flavors we love – but are also elegant and exotic,” says Darlington. “They provide not just wowing flavor and texture, but genuine interest.”

Good to know: When pairing cocktails and vegetarian bar snacks, Darlington suggests balancing sweet, sour and acidic elements. Then consider what might cut through or bulk up a beverage’s intensity or create a flavor bridge between aromatics.


  • Yucca fries with avocado crema, $8
  • Dobo-dusted tots, sour cream, pickled onion and cotija cheese, $9
    Sally Can Wait, New York City
  • Brown-butter popcorn, $10
  • Maple, bourbon, rosemary and cayenne-spiced nuts, $12
    Death & Co, Denver, Los Angeles and New York City
  • Sweet and salty snack mix of corn nuts, roasted peas, half-popped popcorn, chili and garlic, $6
    Punch House, Chicago
  • Crispy Brussels sprouts, Eastern NC BBQ, blue cheese, pecans and chili mayo, $13
    Twisted Laurel, Asheville, North Carolina
  • Chicharrones with charred tomatillo salsa verde, $10
    Father’s Office, Los Angeles
  • Marinated cucumbers, whipped tahini and chili salt, $12
    L.P. Rooftop, Los Angeles
  • Hand-picked blue crab beignets with lemon and garlic aioli, $16
    The Gin Commission, Chicago